I read Emma for the first time about 20 years ago. I liked it very much, but it didn’t become a favorite. In fact, it took me 20 years to get around to it again, and I only returned to it because I had decided to attend the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Annual General Meeting this weekend. The theme of the weekend was “Emma at 200: No One But Herself.” I enjoyed the second reading of Emma very much, but attending the conference enhanced my appreciation of this complex book even more. Many of my musings here will build on insights I gained at the meeting.
Aside from Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, Emma Woodhouse is perhaps Austen’s least liked heroine. And the reputation is, in some respects, deserved—more so than Fanny’s. Emma is an interfering know-if-all who talks Harriet Smith out of an advantageous marriage to a man she loves, throws her at a man who has no interest in her, and looks down on many of her neighbors for no good reason, even going so far as to openly insult one of them in public. However, Emma is young and she learns from her mistakes—even if it’s slow going at times.
One of the things that I found striking on this second reading is how isolated Emma is. Highbury is a tiny town, and Emma is at the top of the class structure there. Many of her actions could be her way of asserting and maintaining that status because it’s all she has. She befriends Harriet Smith because Harriet agrees with her in all things, something Jane Fairfax would be less likely to do. Harriet is not a threat in the way that Jane is. But, the truth is, Jane’s situation is far more precarious that Emma’s, which perhaps explains her clinging to an obviously terrible engagement with a cad like Frank Churchill.
In “Funny Lady: Dangerous Humor and Female Empowerment in Emma,” Mackenzie Broderick pointed out that Emma is really a black comedy. The prose may sparkle, but when you look at what’s actually happening, the story is pretty bleak. Jokes are how characters assert their power, but they also reveal people at their worst, as is seen in Emma’s insult to Miss Bates at Box Hill. But, as a woman, Emma knows what it is to be on the other side of the power structure, and so she understands her error and is horrified about it—and she didn’t need Knightley to point out how wrong she is. She knew it right away. But if she wasn’t able to see that and change her ways, Emma could easily turn into another Lady Catherine de Bourgh, a point made by Rebecca Posusta in a presentation titled “Who’s Afraid of Miss Bates?”
Indeed, many of Emma’s actions seem both more selfish and more understandable when you look at her prospects. She’s been confined to this tiny town, more so than she needs to be. In “The Post Office Is a Wonderful Establishment: Epistolary Novels, Private Space, and Postal Culture in Regency England,” L. Bao Bui, pointed out that she’s not been to Box Hill, only seven miles away; she hasn’t been to the shore; and despite being 16 miles from London and having a sister there, she does not go to London for the season. Frank Churchill could go to London ostensibly for a haircut. Emma has not been in society enough. She’s not had to pay deference to anyone, except her father. She clings to her status as Highbury’s alpha female because it’s all she has.
As for Emma’s father, I originally saw him as a comic figure, but the more I think about it, the more troubling I find him. Much of Emma’s plight can be blamed on his unwillingness to let her go. Look at the novel’s supposed happy ending, where Mr. Woodhouse consents to Emma’s marriage only because there have been robberies nearby and he decides they’ll be safer with Mr. Knightley in the house. The tone there is cheerful, but really? People criticize Mrs. Bennett all the time, but at least she’s looking out for her daughters. Aside from trying to control everyone else’s diet, Mr. Woodhouse looks out only for himself. The whole town walks on eggshells around him, and the more I think about it, the more unsettling it gets.
I know many people really love Mr. Knightley, but I continue to find him one of Austen’s blander heroes. On the first read, I was genuinely surprised when he and Emma ended up together. It hadn’t occurred to me, and I felt then (and to some degree still feel) that they’re together because there’s no one else around for either of them. And I’m a little unsettled by the fact that his primary role has been to chide and instruct her, even if he does so out of kindness and happens to be right. What does that say about feminine power in the world of the novel? Must a woman like Emma always be directed by a man?
Emma, more than Austen’s other novels, is about the heroine’s personal growth. Mackenzie Broderick noted in her presentation that it is Emma’s flaws that drive the plot of the novel. The marriage plot seems beside the point. And when I start trying to make the marriage plot essential, I don’t like the implications. Is Knightley a Petruchio to Emma’s Katherine? None of the sessions I attended at the AGM dug into their relationship, but there’s plenty there to think about.